Gwen's Reviews > Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch

Elizabeth the Queen by Sally Bedell Smith
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Sep 06, 12

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bookshelves: biography-memoir
Recommended to Gwen by: browsing at the library
Read from September 02 to 06, 2012

A highly readable account of Elizabeth II's life from birth to Golden Jubilee. As a reader not fully versed in British politics, the bits about the various prime ministers went over my head (I think I need to find "British Political History for Dummies" or something similar.), but what Smith was able to write about Elizabeth's personal life was fascinating.

From what I could ascertain (not doing any further research into Smith's background, philosophies, history graduate professors would be so ashamed of me), Smith's biases are: sympathetic to Charles, ardently anti-Diana, and pro-Thatcher. I was amazed at the glowing account Smith gave of Thatcher's policies without any reservations about the long-term effects. (But at the same time, Smith considers the Conservatives "elitist" (Loc. 1995), so I'm confused.)

Also, my inner "healthy at every size" feminist cringed in a number of places:

1) For the Queen-Thatcher relationship, Smith writes, "Both women had trouble discussing their feelings, which prevented them from venturing into personal topics that might have formed a bond--the push and pull of combining professional life and motherhood, and the challenges of having a husband in a subordinate position." (Loc. 4684-4687) While understanding that the 1980s had different gender codes than today, I can't imagine Smith writing this about two men, say George VI and Churchill. Just because the two in question are women doesn't mean the default topics have to be spouses and children.

2) When the Queen traveled to the U.S., she "visited a 210-pound African American great-grandmother, sixty-seven-year-old Alice Frazier." (Loc. 5739) Was there any purpose at all in mentioning the woman's weight? There is no need for fat shaming and adding in a completely irrelevant tidbit about the woman's weight.

3) When discussing the Queen's new dresser, Smith calls her "a plump blond with an effervescent personality." (Loc. 7255) Again, there is no point in mentioning the woman's physical attributes here. What does this add to the broader narrative? Nothing.

4) For the Queen's latest pair of communications specialists, Smith notes that "the all-important Palace communications apparatus was now run by two women in their late thirties, both mothers of small children." (Loc. 7778) Why must Smith identify the women as 'mothers,' as if that's what they really are. Not excellent at their jobs, not wranglers of new media, but mothers. As with the relationship between the Queen and Thatcher, I find it hard that Smith would call out the fact that members of the Queen's staff are fathers. Men get to be themselves, but women have to be defined by their family relationships.

What I learned:

1) The Queen doesn't eat strong spices, garlic, pasta with sauce, and raw shellfish. (In other words, she could never eat a meal at my house.)

2) Since Edward VIII abdicated before he was crowned and anointed, he was never technically king.

3) The Queen and Philip took a spontaneous trip to a supermarket (apparently unknown in Britain at the time) in Maryland after watching a UMD-UNC football game.

4) After Kennedy's assassination, an acre of land at Runnymeade (Magna Carta site) was given by the British people to the United States in perpetuity.

5) With Charles worried about university acceptance, the Queen remarked to Margaret that "you and I would never have got into university." (Loc. 3071)

6) Andrew Parker Bowles (Camilla's former husband) had briefly dated Princess Anne, but because he is Catholic, marriage was never an option.

7) When the Queen traveled to Kentucky, a customs/immigration officer would not admit her without a passport...even though the Queen doesn't carry one. The officer resisted until a call to DC cleared up the matter.

8) The Queen rarely eats at restaurants, so she is often uncomfortable with the process. (Makes sense, but it's just so odd to think that she has issues with ordering off a menu.)

9) She was the first British monarch to visit the Chinese mainland.

10) Royal residences cannot be commercially insured, hence the problem with the Windsor Castle fire. Buckingham Palace was only opened to tourists to raise money for Windsor's restoration.

11) King George V refused to give political asylum to Tsar Nicholas II.

12) William and Harry taught the Queen Mother to imitate Ali G.

13) The Queen collects pepper grinders.

14) She takes a regular commuter train to and from King's Lynn to get to Sandringham.

15) She has a monogrammed electric kettle for tea.

Surely there is a book out there that studies the Queen's marriage with Philip. I would find that fascinating, based on the anecdotes Smith mentions, both about him and their relationship:

1) With regards to their children having her name, Philip fumed, "I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his children. I'm nothing but a bloody amoeba." (Loc. 1331-1332)

2) But at the same time, the Queen placed Philip in charge of all family issues.

3) He calls her "sausage".

4) Philip enjoys to grill and "is known as a creative cook, improvising recipes he has seen on television." (Loc. 3383)

5) Philip is artistically talented.

6) Philip's religious views "meandered from the Greek Orthodox beliefs of his parents through his confirmation as an Anglican to his probing of theological and interfaith issues...more focused on the intellectual side." (Loc. 7603-7605) I always forget that Philip is Greek (kind of).

7) Philip frequently drove through London in his own car, painted to look like a taxi.

Thoughts from the Queen:

*"People need pats on the back's a very dingy world otherwise." (Loc. 1203-1204)

*The Fourth of July "should be celebrated as much in Britain as in America...for having taught Britain a very valuable lesson. We lost the American colonies because we lacked that statesmanship 'to know the right time, and the manner of yielding what is impossible to keep.' We learned to respect the right of others to govern themselves in their own ways." (Loc. 4440-4447)

Books to read next, based on this book:

1) Alan Bennet's The Uncommon Reader--fictionalized version of the Queen who discovers a passion for reading

2) Sarah Bradford's Elizabeth: A Biography of Britain's Queen (Although after wading through her The Reluctant King:The Life & Reign of George VI 1895-1952, I'm not sure I'm mentally strong enough to do another one of her books.)
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